'Elfs' vs 'Elves': What's the Difference?

By Katie Moore, updated on July 15, 2023

‘Elfs’ vs ‘Elves’: What’s the Difference? You might be thinking, “Why study supernatural creatures? How is this relevant to my life?” Well, you’d be surprised how frequently magical beings appear in our day to day, especially if you’re an avid reader or movie watcher. Plus, the grammar lesson you’ll learn today will apply to much more than just fairy tales. 

In a hurry? Here’s a sneak peek at what’s to come: 

  • An ‘Elf’ is a small magical creature popularized during Christmas and in various fantasy franchises. 
  • The plural of ‘Elf’ is ‘Elves,’ not ‘Elfs.’ 

What’s the Difference Between ‘Elfs’ vs ‘Elves’?

So what is the difference between ‘Elfs’ vs ‘Elves’? The simple answer to this question is that one is right, and one is wrong. 

  • ‘Elves’ is the proper plural spelling of the word ‘Elf.’ 

Confusion about this is warranted, however, because about half the words that end in “f” turn “-ves” in the plural, but the other half stay as “-fs.” More of this will be covered in detail later, but for now, remember that the “-ves” ending is proper for ‘Elves.’ 

One important note is that since ‘Elves’ are humanoid creatures, they can possess things. 

  • The possessive of Elf would be ‘Elf’s,’ but the apostrophe clarifies that. In writing this will be easy to spot but be sure to use context clues when hearing this in conversation.

To help clarify why some words like ‘Elf’ change to using the “-ves” ending in the plural, let's take a closer look at some similar words and their origins. 

Plural Endings of Words that End in “F”

As mentioned, the plural ending for words that end in “F” are not that stable, and there is about a half-and-half split when it comes to words that have the “-ves” change. Like most changes, this alteration is rooted in linguistic simplicity and phonetics. 

  • The voiceless \f\ sound that comes at the end of words like ‘Elf’ becomes a voiced \v\ when pluralized because it is the natural way of the letter “s” to vocalize consonants that appear next to it when added to the end of a word. 

Give it a try: 

  • Say the word ‘Elfs’ with an “s” five times fast and listen to how it naturally will sound more like ‘Elves’. 

This change created a bit of a linguistic shortcut, making ‘Elves’ easier and more common to pronounce than ‘Elfs.’ Of course, ‘Elves’ was not the first and is not the only word that does this.

Here is a list of words that do the same when made plural: 

  • shelf > shelves
  • wolf > wolves 
  • leaf > leaves
  • thief > thieves
  • wife > wives
  • calf > calves
  • knife > knives

Unfortunately, there are words that don’t follow this ending rule, but there is no definitive pattern to determine which don’t and why they don’t.

Consider them exceptions to memorize, and here are a few to get a handle on: 

  • beliefs 
  • roofs
  • chiefs 
  • serfs 
  • reliefs 

One rule that is common, however, is that words that end in a double “-ff” always keep the “-ff” in their plural endings. 

For example:

  • sheriffs
  • cliffs
  • cuffs
  • earmuffs, etc. 

This can be a bit frustrating at first, but when you learn the exception to the more common rule, it’s easy to identify when to switch plural endings. And now that you know more about the “-ves” ending, let’s dive deeper into the word “Elves.”

Definition of ‘Elves’: What Does it Mean? 

According to Oxford Languages, ‘Elves’ is a plural noun that means: 

  • A supernatural creature of folk tales typically represented as a small, elusive figure in human form with pointed ears, magical powers, and a capricious nature.
  • ‘Elves’ were first truly seen in Germanic folklore, but since then, they have become popularized in a variety of fantasy contexts.

For example:

  • ‘Elves’ are a mysterious humanoid race in J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous Lord of the Rings series, and appear in other fantasy games such as Dungeons and Dragons
  • ‘Elves’ have also become a staple during the holiday season and are commonly known as Santa Clause’s helpers who work at the North Pole. 

The description of ‘Elves’ varies depending on the context, but they can be generally expected to be aloof and magical. 

Synonyms of ‘Elves’

  • Fairy folk
  • Elfenfolk
  • Sprite
  • Pixie
  • Imp
  • Hobgoblin
  • Leprechaun
  • Gremlin

Antonyms of ‘Elves’

Phrases with ‘Elves’

  • Santa’s elves
  • Woodland elves
  • Elf village
  • Elven lords
  • Tolkien’s Elves

Pronunciation: How to Pronounce ‘Elfs’ vs ‘Elves’

Pronunciation is perhaps the key to identifying the difference between the correct and incorrect plural of the word ‘Elf.’ So, to keep things clear, below, you’ll find only the pronunciation of the correct plural ‘Elves.’ 

Use this phonetic spelling of ‘Elves’ as a guide: 

  • ‘Ehl-vz’ (note that the first “e” sounds similar to ‘hello,’ and the “s” when next to the “-ve” sounds more like a “z” because it is vocalized)

How to Use ‘Elfs’ vs ‘Elves’ in a Sentence

Again, since ‘Elfs’ is the incorrect spelling, no examples will be provided for using that form so as not to reinforce improper spelling or pronunciation. However, seeing a word in action can be one of the best ways to solidify how to use it and what contexts might be appropriate. Here are some example sentences using the proper spelling of ‘Elves’: 

‘Elves’ Example Sentences

  • Many Christmas movies feature Elves hard at work at the North Pole making toys to deliver to children all over the world. 
  • J. R. R. Tolkien’s character Legolas, played by Orlando Bloom in the Lord of the Rings movies, was my first childhood crush. 
  • There is much debate as to whether elves are tall and ethereal or short and bothersome. 
  • The word ‘Elves’ stems from the German word ‘alp,’ which means “nightmare” — could this mean elves are evil creatures? 
  • The popular Christmas movie “Elf” tells the story of Buddy, who is much taller than his brothers and doesn’t fit in with the other elves. 

Final Advice on ‘Elfs’ vs ‘Elves’

Sometimes knowing the difference between spelling a word right or wrong can mean just adding a few letters. But knowing the history behind the change and other places it appears can really solidify the proper spelling, which is what’s important here. 

Want a recap? Here’s what we covered in this article:

  • ‘Elves’ are magical creatures with a pension for mischief and building toys for nice kids. 
  • The proper plural of ‘Elf’ is ‘Elves,’ which reflects a common linguistic change among words that end in “-f.” 
  • This is due to the letter “s” having a tendency to vocalize consonants when they are next to each other at the end of a word. 

Plurals can be tricky, but many follow the same pattern that can actually help unlock a whole host of new vocabulary. Be sure to investigate other confusing words and their singular and plural forms. And hopefully, you’re also now fully equipped for your next Lord of the Rings re-watch or Dungeons and Dragons match.

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Written By:
Katie Moore
Katie is a recent graduate of Occidental College where she worked as a writer and editor for the school paper while studying linguistics and journalism. She loves helping others find their voice in writing and making their work the strongest it can be. Katie also loves learning and speaking other languages and wants to help make writing accessible for everyone.

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